Stories tagged H1N1

The WHO has raised the swine flu pandemic alert to the highest level. (A/H1N1 is the first flu pandemic in 41 years.) This doesn't mean the disease is more dangerous, just that it's in more places and continuing to spread. As of this morning, 28,774 confirmed A/H1N1 cases have been reported in 74 countries, with 144 deaths. (These counts are not precise anymore, however, because many people who catch this flu are recovering at home without being tested.)

Watch/listen to the press conference

Map of the outbreak

BBC coverage

73 countries, more than 25,000 people infected with H1N1.

That's right, Trinidad and Tobago, Dominica, the Cayman Islands, and the United Arab Emirates have all joined the club of countries with reported H1N1, or swine flu, cases. (It used to be such a cool club, but then Germany joined, and... yawn.)

And yet I've stopped thinking about the pandemic. I just have all these DVDs that need my attention.

May
31
2009

Vaccine production
Vaccine productionCourtesy AJC1

US pays billion dollars for developing new flu vaccine

The latest information from Pandemicflu.gov explains the next steps toward an H1N1 influenza vaccine.

BARDA

The Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA), which is part of the Dept. on HHS, has an official "fact sheet" explaining 2009 H1N1 Vaccine Development Activities.

U.S. Department of Health & Human Services (HHS) Secretary Kathleen Sebelius is directing nearly $1.1 billion in existing preparedness funds to manufacture two important parts of a vaccine for the Strategic National Stockpile, to produce small amounts of potential vaccine for research, and to perform clinical research over the summer. HHS press release

How do vaccines work?

Vaccines work by tricking the immune system into thinking it has been infected with the H1N1 swine flu virus so that it creates antibodies against it. The vaccine is a hybrid of the virus which is similar enough that our immune system will develop antibodies against a specific virus.

How is swine flu vaccine made?

We are now starting step 4.

  1. obtain typical sample of novel H1N1 virus
  2. reproduce sample in eggs
  3. Mix H1N1 and PR8 viruses into eggs and allowing a hybrid strain to be created through a natural re-assortment of their genes
  4. Multiply seed virus into millions of doses
  5. test virus in people to determine the most effective and safest dose to generate a strong immune response to the 2009-H1N1 virus
  6. decide whether to use adjuvants
  7. mass produce vaccine

What is an adjuvant?

An adjuvant is an additive to a vaccine that helps to generate a stronger immune response to the vaccine. When using an adjuvant it is often possible to reduce the size of the vaccine dose and the number of doses needed. Special permission from the Food and Drug Administration will be needed for the adjuvants to be used, as neither one is currently approved for use in this country. Washington Post

Can vaccines be made without using eggs?

"The federal government has given the vaccine industry $1.3 billion to spur a shift from growing the viruses in eggs to growing them in stainless steel tanks containing mammalian cells.

Such cell culture could shave a few weeks off the process, experts estimate, and would eliminate the need for millions of eggs on short notice. Some vaccines made in cells have been approved in Europe but not in the United States." New York Times

Learn more about making swine flu vaccine

How to make a swine flu vaccine BBC
CDC May 28 Press Briefing transcript
Flu vaccine development questions and answers BARDA

May
24
2009

Antigenic shift in flu viruses: is when at least two different strains of a virus combine to form a new subtype having a mixture of the surface antigens of the two original strains.
Antigenic shift in flu viruses: is when at least two different strains of a virus combine to form a new subtype having a mixture of the surface antigens of the two original strains.Courtesy National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID)

Model of H1N1 flu virus takes shape

Genetic analysis of the new H1N1 virus shows that the hemagglutinin (the H in H1N1) and two other genes are from the 1918 Spanish flu virus and have been living in pigs ever since. Studies also show that the neuraminidase (the N in H1N1) segment is from the Eurasian swine flu virus that probably leaped from birds to pigs in about 1979.

The new virus differs in 21 of 387 amino acids from the H5N1 virus and the 1918 Spanish flu (also an H1N1 virus). - Singapore’s Agency for Science and Technology Research report in Biology Direct.

Shape shifting viral surface challenges vaccination success

"Viruses isolated from patients during the first two weeks of the current outbreak already have changes on the outer surface on the neuraminidase protein that could interfere with antibodies against the virus or alter the effectiveness of future vaccines. But none of the changes have altered the parts of the protein targeted by antiviral drugs, such as Tamiflu or Relenza." Science News

Learn more
If you click through to the source article in Science News, you will see a great three dimensional model of the influenza A/H1N1 virus with the origin of each of the virus's pieces explained.

A new study has found that many Americans over the age of 60 have some immunity to the H1N1 swine flu virus. Using stored blood samples scientists at CDC have discovered that 1/3 of those over age 60 have antibodies that may help protect them from a new infection. It's likely that this is because they were exposed to a similar strain decades ago. If a vaccine is developed and is in short supply, this information may help scientists decide how to distribute doses of the vaccine. Right now most serious cases seem to be occurring in younger populations, which also have been shown to have fewer antibodies. This Washington Post article explains more.

May
17
2009

Cold noses are good for preventing bird flu

Don't let your children do this
Don't let your children do thisCourtesy KnOizKi

A recent study may explain why the bird flu has not become a pandemic. The human nose is too cold. Avian flu viruses prefer 104 degree F. The temperature in our noses is usually less than 90 degrees F. Critics of the study point out that it was only done in petri dishes so may not be an accurate reflection of what happens in humans.

Since the bird flu virus re-emerged in 2003, there have been only 423 reported cases. If the viruses manage to get into the lower lung, however, they replicate so quickly that 6 out of 10 victims (258) died.

The normal seasonal flu kills only 1 out of 1000 victims (250,000 to 500,000 people per year world wide).

Figuring the odds of a deadly mutation

Please comment what you think about this logic.

"When more people get the flu, the chances of a deadly mutation increases. Say the chance of a deadly mutation is one in a million. If 10,000 people get sick, the odds are 10,000/1,000,000 or 1/100. If a million people get sick the chance of a deadly mutation is almost a sure thing."

The new H1N1 virus appears to be more contagious

The percentage of contacts who catch the regular variety of flu from an infected person is between 5 and 15 percent, but current estimates for H1N1 being spread range from 22 to 33 per cent (according to WHO). Reuters via Yahoo News

As of May 15, 2009, 34 countries have officially reported 7520 cases of influenza A(H1N1) infection. World Health Organization

An intriguing mutation has been detected

The virus isolated from the second swine flu patient in the Netherlands has an intriguing mutation in a gene called PB2 that could mean that the virus has become better at spreading from person to person, a team of Dutch researchers reported on Friday on ProMED, a monitoring system for disease outbreaks. But they're the first to acknowledge that it could also be a red herring. Science Insider

You can make a difference

If you can behave in ways that prevent you from catching or spreading this new type of H1N1 flu, you will minimize the odds its changing into a more deadly form.

May
15
2009

The best questions we bury for later: We also bury the worst questions.
The best questions we bury for later: We also bury the worst questions.Courtesy Ed Fitzgerald
Ahoy, Buzzketeers! Captain JGordon here, waltzing on the poop deck of the HMS Puddleduck, pride of the Science Museum’s little navy, and harvester of the juiciest, richest random questions.

Usually.

See, when I answer random questions, it generally goes something like this: I grab the stack of question cards and shuffle through them, “Good, good, garbage, good, garbage, garbage, garbage, good, delightful, garbage.” It’s not that I think any of your questions are garbage, of course, it’s just that many of the cards consist of vulgar personal attacks against celebrities, some are illegible, and a few are just too greasy for me to touch. And sometimes there are simply too many of them for me to address, so I select the choicest questions, to construct an enjoyable and inclusive didactic experience.

But it’s springtime, and the Puddleduck is currently taking a leisurely cruise up the coast of Knowledgarnia. (Knowledgarnia is the union of the formerly independent states of The Republic of Knowledge and Narnia. Think about Czechoslovakia, only in reverse.) The water here in the warm seas off Knowledgarnia is so shallow and clear that you can see the facts swimming lazily just beneath the surface. It is… glorious. And it suits a much more lackadaisical attitude toward question selection.

Last night, in the grips of a wild upswing of Springmania (the union of the two formerly independent psychiatric disorders spring fever and bipolar disorder) I was firing my captain’s revolver randomly into the ocean. When I woke up on the deck the next morning and crawled over to the rail, I saw that a good handful of truly random questions had been shot and killed by my… enthusiasm. Perhaps an angel guided those bullets, or perhaps it was pure chance. Either way, here they are, just as I found them:

Q: Would you eat the moon if it were made of ribs?

A: Yes, but I would eat only some of it. This is partly because I would want to leave some of the moon for people to look at, but also because the moon is too big for me to eat by myself. The mass of the moon is 7.3477 x 10^22 kg. That’s… let’s see… 73,477,000,000,000,000,000,000 kg, or 161,649,400,000,000,000,000,000 pounds. Now, if a rack of ribs weighs about 2 pounds, that means that the moon should be made of about 80,824,700,000,000,000,000,000 racks of ribs. Now, if I were to live another 60 years, and eat 2 racks of ribs a day, every day, I’d be able to eat only 43,830 racks of ribs. This would not make any appreciable dent in the mass of ribs that is the moon. Plus, I think most of them would go bad before I even got there.

Q: Why are flamingos pink?

A: Ooh! Okay! Flamingos are actually born (hatched?) gray. Don’t believe me? Take a look at this ridiculous little creature. It’s the flamingos’ food that eventually turns them pink. Flamingos eat by getting beaks full of water, and then straining out all the liquid until just little shrimp and algae are left. The shrimp and algae (which are eaten) have lots of the vitamin beta carotene in them. Beta carotene is a colorful vitamin (eating too much of it can turn your skin a little bit orange), and it makes the flamingos’ feathers pink. Viola! (In zoos, though, where flamingos might not get all the beta carotene they would in the wild, the birds are sometimes fed the pigment additive canthaxanthin, which has the same effect.)

Q: The “swine flu” was named H1N1. Why did they decide to call it H1N1?

A: Another good one! We’re all about the swine flu here at the museum (It’s interesting! Really! Look here!) so I was ready for this one. See, the “swine flu” is a form of the disease influenza, which is caused by viruses. There are a bunch of different viruses that cause influenza. They’re all related, but each variety, or strain, of virus has some subtle differences in the molecules that they’re made of. Scientists use two molecules in particular to identify different strains: hemaggluten (that’s where the “H” comes from), the molecule that allows the virus to stick to our cells and infect us, and neuraminidase (that’s the “N”), the molecule that allows viruses to exit a cell to spread the infection throughout more of the body. The numbers after H and N correspond to different variation of the two molecules. So this year’s swine flu is H1N1. The bird flu, or avian flu, in Asia that people have been concerned about for the last few years is H5N1. Does that make sense?

Q: How long can you tread water before drowning?

A: Hmm. Well, if you’re asking me, the answer is about 30 seconds. I have a narrow, dense body, and I’m not very strong, so I sink like a glass rod. I suppose it sort of depends on the person, and on the water. See, salt water is more dense than fresh water, so objects in it are more buoyant—they float better. So treading water in the ocean is easier than treading water in a lake. Also, if the water is cold, your body is going to use up more energy to keep you warm, and you’ll have less energy for treading water. A powerful swimmer can tread water for hours on end, and even after your energy is gone, you could always float on your back, keeping your face above water. I suppose, at that point, it’s just a matter of staying awake and fending off the sharks.

Q: Why is it 3 levels? I spend 11 dollars for this bull ****.

A: Sir! Well I never! Perhaps you should have saved those eleven dollars to spend on soap for your filthy mouth! Seriously, though, those three levels are jam-packed. You explored the mysteries of the human body. You floated a ball on a jet of air, and watched a tornado form from steam. I mean, did you not see the dinosaurs? Realtalk, bro: what more could you ask for?

Q: Do you know anything about Area 51, or its space objects?

A: Well… is the government watching? No? OK. Let’s do this.

“Area 51” is a nickname for a military base in Nevada. It’s part of the huge piece of land that is the Air Force’s “Nevada Test and Training Range.” Civilians generally aren’t allowed on it, and the airspace around it is restricted. There are a lot of conspiracy theories surrounding Area 51 involving time travel technology, New World Order junk, energy weapons development, etc, etc, etc. The most popular theory, of course, involves “space objects,” as you put it. Or, more specifically, space aliens. Some folks are convinced that Area 51 is used to study the remains of an alien spacecraft that crashed in Roswell, NM in 1947. Unfortunately, the argument that this is Area 51’s real purpose, or if there ever actually was alien material at Roswell, is pretty much based on conjecture, some creative interpretation of government documents, and a few personal accounts of people that claimed to have worked there. It’s not a lot to go on, and an Internet search for “Area 51” will tell you as more than I can here. I just wouldn’t write any school papers on it.

But “space objects” or no, Area 51 is a pretty interesting, sneaky sort of place. And there’s probably plenty of science (of a sort) happening there, because area is used for development and testing of new weapons and aircraft. Several stealth fighter and bomber planes got their start there, and those are pretty neat, even if aliens didn’t invent them.

Q: What do you foresee in the future for humanity in regards to our evolution, and what role might technology play in that?

A: Huh. Well, how a species evolves depends on the natural pressures that are placed on it. And evolution takes place on a huge timescale—it can be millions of years before enough changes accumulate in a species for another species to emerge from it.

But what natural pressures will humans face over the next million years? Modern humans haven’t even been around that long so far (we’re a pretty young species, at about 200,000-years-old), so saying where we’re going to end up in millions of years is awfully tricky. As the evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins puts it in this MSNBC article on the future of human evolution, “it’s a question that any prudent evolutionist will avoid.”

But that’s a boring answer. It’s not an answer at all, I suppose. If you want to predict how we’ll evolve, I’d learn about the principles of evolution (time, natural selection, adaptation, etc), then imagine what the world of the future will be like, and then try to think how we’d need to be different to fit into that world. Will the climate be dramatically different? If we haven’t got technology to protect us from the elements, maybe our skin will change to better protect us from solar radiation, or we’ll be harrier to deal with the cold. Maybe, on average, human body types will be taller and more slender to get rid of the heat, or shorter and thicker, to reduce mass to surface area and conserve heat. Maybe we’ll have to adapt internally to deal with more or less oxygen in the air, or our digestive systems will change to eat different kinds of foods (try eating everything a goat eats—you couldn’t, because you don’t have a four-chambered stomach). Or maybe the Earth will change faster than we can, and we’ll die out altogether. It’s a creepy thought, but mass extinction events have happened over and over again in Earth’s history, eliminating thousands of species before they even got the chance to evolve.

But your mention of technology is a good point. It seems likely at this point that people might influence their own evolution through technological means. This concept is sometimes referred to as “participant evolution.” The rate at which we’re figuring out how to integrate technological components into our bodies seems to be moving a lot faster than any natural adaptations we might be undergoing. Prosthetics are getting awfully sophisticated, as are the ways we’re able to interface them (and other technology) with our brains. I mean, we’ve got monkey brains controlling robot legs and people posting to twitter using just their brains (and some fancy equipment). It seems pretty reasonable to assume that this stuff is only going to get more advanced and more common.

But participant evolution wouldn’t be restricted to just computer chips and electric motors. There’s also biotechnology; we’ve mapped the human genome, and we’re constantly advancing our genetic engineering abilities. So augmenting human evolution with technology might not necessarily lead to dudes with robot eyes and laser fingers so much as populations that have genes that protect them from cancer, allow them to live far beyond our current lifespan, and fart clouds of lavender. (I’m hoping for the lavender thing most of all.)

It’s all sort of sci-fi stuff, but when you’re dealing with what’s going to happen thousands or millions of years in the future… why not?

Q: What shampoo do you use? Why?

A: I, um, don’t really use a lot of shampoo. Why? I ran out a couple months ago, and decided it wasn’t a huge priority.

Q: How much wood can woodchucks chuck?

A: Very little, possibly none. I guess it sort of depends on what you mean by “chuck.” If “chuck” means to, like, stand next to, then I guess a woodchuck could potentially chuck lots and lots of wood. But if “chuck” means to eat, or chew, or throw, or whatever, then I’d have to stick with “very little” as my answer.

See, the name “woodchuck” probably comes from the Algonquian (a Native American language) word for this big North American rodent, “wuchak.” It sounds a little like “woodchuck,” doesn’t it? But it’s got nothing to do with wood or chucking.

One of the animal’s other names, groundhog, is maybe a little more fitting. If you were to have asked, “how much ground can a groundhog hog if a groundhog could hog ground?” I’d have said, “A groundhog actually can hog ground, and when digging a burrow (they live underground, not in trees), groundhogs have are estimated to move about 700 pounds of dirt. So 700 pounds is your answer!”

But that’s not what you asked.

Gosh. All things considered, I think that random question session went pretty well. I’ll have to do it this way more often. Until then… avast. Or whatever. It’s lunchtime.

How would you direct research in a flu epidemic?
How would you direct research in a flu epidemic?Courtesy CDC
Imagine you're the director of the
Center for Disease Control, the US government’s top job for handling public health concerns.

Suddenly you’re faced with a new strain of flu, and must make a series of decisions over the course of a year on how to handle the outbreak. What will you do? Head on over to the Science Buzz swine flu feature and play the, "Swine flu: what would you do?" simulation. Test your decision-making ability to handling a possible flu crisis. See how your decisions compare with others who’ve tried this activity.

May
07
2009

As time goes on the H1N1 "swine flu" virus might infect and kill millions of people, or it might turn out to be one of those stories that the media hyped, but that never came to pass. As this video presentation from the website gapminder points out using some interesting statistics - there are many other diseases out there that barely make the news, even though they impact far more people.

I'm not saying that this recent influenza outbreak isn't interesting or news worthy (it is), but as a famous hip hop group once told us, Don't Believe the Hype!

Or at least give it a critical second glance...